Facebook Is a Publisher and Must Be Responsible for Content, Says Founder of World's Biggest Advertising Company

As Facebook continues to face pressure from an advertising boycott this month, a powerful figure in the marketing industry—Sir Martin Sorrell—has said social media firms must be "responsible" for content hosted on their platforms.

The founder and former boss of WPP—one of the world's largest advertising groups—told The Guardian he considers social networks to be publishers as well as tech firms, and they have a responsibility to police what users upload.

The advertising titan spoke out after companies including Unilever, Coca-Cola, Disney, Adidas and Starbucks cut Facebook ad-spend in conjunction with the "Stop Hate for Profit" campaign, which accused the site of failing to combat hate content.

The protest was launched by a coalition of civil rights groups that decided to target ad dollars on Facebook, which account for 98 percent of its annual revenue.

"At the heart of this issue is whether these platforms are tech companies or media companies, a publisher," Sorrell told The Guardian when asked about the boycott.

"They all say they are tech companies. I've always held the view they are publishers and they must act like publishers and be responsible for their content. They can't say they are digital engineers tightening nuts on digital pipes with digital spanners and are not responsible for digital content that flows through those pipes. They are."

Sorrell spent more than three decades at WPP before leaving in 2018 and starting a new media-focused communications firm called S4 Capital, which recently reached a £1.5bn market valuation. WPP, meanwhile, listed £13.2 billion in revenue last year.

Ultimately, Sorrell said he does not think the ad boycott is the most efficient way to urge change, explaining: "I'm not of a view that a boycott is the right way to go.

"The best way for advertisers to deal with this is to have that... conversation with them. A threat is no good once it is exercised, a threat is only good if it is not exercised."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently echoed a similar stance on the ad boycott, reportedly saying he would not bend easily to the demands of advertisers.

"We're not gonna change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue, or to any percent of our revenue," he stated. He said firms "will be back on the platform soon enough."

The question of technology company versus publisher has long plagued Facebook, which has for years struggled to combat the viral spread of conspiracy theories, hate speech and extremist material from being uploaded by its billions of users.

For his part, Zuckerberg previously said he views it as a tech company first.

Addressing the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April 2018, the founder said despite that, it still bears responsibility for the content it hosts.

"I view us as a tech company because the primary thing that we do is build technology and products," Zuckerberg told senators during one testimony. "I agree that we are responsible for the content, but we don't produce the content," the CEO added.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty